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NSF recalibrates direction

March 01, 2018
By: Ellen Marrison & Jason Rittenberg

The National Science Foundation’s new strategic plan argues that the U.S. must continue investing in world-class research, develop a globally competitive scientific and engineering workforce, and foster greater understanding of science and technology among the American public. However, the pressure of new priorities and level funding proposed for FY 2019 have yielded some surprising directions for the agency’s planned investments.

Research and innovation process goals

Building the Future; Investing in Discovery and Innovation places particular emphasis on broadening participation in STEM workforce. NSF indicates it will continue to invest in programs that directly advance the STEM workforce, as well as research on what the workforce of the future will require and improved methods to provide the requisite skills and diversity. To these goals, the agency’s FY 2019 budget proposal includes a slight increase for undergraduate STEM funding (up 0.4 percent). NSF decreases funding in what it describes as its two most significant graduate programs — Graduate Research Fellowship (down 15.3 percent) and NSF Research Traineeship (down 1.4 percent) — as well as reducing Engineer Education and Centers by 10.5 percent.

The plan also places an emphasis on the importance of speeding the translation of new discoveries into commercial applications. The agency promotes the I-Corps program as a means of fostering a national innovation ecosystem by encouraging institutions, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to identify and explore the innovation and commercial potential of their research. The agency’s spending for I-Corps, spread across multiple directorates, is proposed to increase by 0.5 percent in FY 2019. The plan also encourages partnerships with industry, other agencies, and international sponsors to build capacity, leverage resources and increase the speed of translation from discovery to innovation. Despite this priority, the budget appears to cut many initiatives that support university-industry partnerships, including Engineering Research Centers (3.2 percent) and the Industrial Innovation and Partnerships programs (by 3.6 percent across IUCRC, PFI and GOALI). SBIR/STTR spending would drop by 0.2 percent — despite NSF reporting a planned increase in R&D funding. While the agency-supported engineering research centers are being reduced, the strategic plan reports an intention to increase the number of partnerships and / or award actions with other federal agencies, private industry, and foundation / philanthropies by 5 percent, relative the FY 2017 baseline.

NSF admits that partnerships can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive process with obstacles and disincentives. “We will explore process enhancements that facilitate an expansion of inter-agency and public-private partnerships, and work with stakeholders to remove barriers. We will identify important areas of science and engineering ripe for joint investment with the private sector and other partners and work to establish new partnerships in these areas. We will build on existing models of success, which have included joint solicitations with industry and international funders, and the creation of large-scale consortia.”

To build capacity, NSF’s strategic plan says that all sectors of society must have the opportunity to participate and contribute. The agency’s budget proposes to change the structure of these activities. While efforts to broaden participation are being reduced by 4.2 percent, the agency would launch an expanded INCLUDES initiative as one of its 10 “big ideas.” The significance of this transformation is not entirely clear, although the budget states that this will help move efforts to the level of “national collaboration.”

Other process-focused “big ideas” from the budget are growing convergence research, a process to fund mid-scale research infrastructure, and a fund to seed foundational research outside of a particular research directorate.

The agency is also proposing to change its approach to international research collaboration. Saying it is “changing to a new overseas presence and updating our approach as to how we support international scientific collaboration,” NSF announced the closing of its three international offices, noting that it will transition to a new model where NSF experts will be deployed for short-term expeditions. Resources for the new model will be gained from the closures of the physical offices. NSF noted in its release on the closures that the impact of having physical offices changed as the world has changed and that the new model will provide an “opportunity to modernize and broaden our international collaboration.”

Research topics and directions

The budget proposes six “big ideas” in the form of new strategic opportunities for American research leadership, each of which would receive $30 million in funding support. Two, which will be operated as “convergence accelerators,” are “harnessing the data revolution” and “future of work at the human technology frontier.” The latter area may be particularly relevant for TBED as part of the agency’s funding in this area should focus on understanding the emerging social landscape and fostering lifelong learning.

The remaining four “big ideas” are “windows on the universe,” “leading the next quantum revolution,” “understanding the rules of life” and “navigating the new Arctic.” Each area is being supported by two of NSF’s directorates and will help dictate the agency’s prioritization for R&D awards.

nsf, federal agency